Stephen R. C. Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism:
Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault:
A Discussion
Steven M. Sanders
Bridgewater State College
1. Introduction
Readers of Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism 1 will find
much to reflect upon and engage with in the pages of this lucid study of the
background, themes, and consequences of postmodernist thought and practice.
The book has already received lavish praise from Reason Papers founding
editor Tibor R. Machan and it is easy to see why. 2 With clarity, concision, and
an engaging style, Hicks exposes the historical roots and philosophical
assumptions of the postmodernist phenomenon. More than that, he raises key
questions about the legacy of postmodernism and its implications for our
intellectual attitudes and cultural life.
Explaining Postmodernism is broad in scope, moving with ease from
Rousseau and Kant to Derrida and Rorty. Hicks writes about modern
European philosophy and the Anglo-American tradition with sophistication
and an eye for the thought-revealing anecdote. In addition to tackling major
thinkers, including Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Hicks
gives us insightful glimpses into a number of second-tier figures who are still
less widely discussed than perhaps they should be. The book is studded with
clarifying distinctions and is written in a style that seamlessly integrates
primary material into the narrative, making explicit the common themes
underlying postmodernism in philosophy, politics, and the arts.
This is not a purely historical work. It is also a critique, and in many
places it is vigorously polemical. Hicks makes a commendable effort to
provide a balanced account of the philosophers he discusses, but his emphasis
is clearly on aspects of their thought of greatest relevance to the development
of postmodernism. In any case, it takes courage for a philosopher at an
American university to say some of the things Hicks says in this book. One
1 Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from
Rousseau to Foucault (Tempe, AZ: Scholarly Publishing, Inc., 2004).
2 Machan’s review is posted on the Amazon website.
Reason Papers 28 (Spring 2006): 111-124. Copyright © 2006
need only note the fate of Lawrence Summers to see how very risky it can be
to transgress Left orthodoxy in the academy. As Steven Pinker reports, when
the president of Harvard University had the temerity to raise the question of
the possibility of innate sex differences at a conference on gender imbalances
in science, eminent MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins stormed out of the room to
avoid, she said, fainting or becoming physically ill—thereby, in the words of
Harvey Mansfield, conforming to the traditional stereotype of women as
“emotional” at the same time as she denounced it. 3 The National Organization
for Women called for Summers’s resignation and more than 100 Harvard
faculty members signed a letter criticizing him. In a follow-up story on the
controversy, Jason Zengerle makes it clear that left-leaning Harvard faculty
had other grievances against Summers, including his paean to patriotism a
month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, his decision to rescind a
Sixties-era policy prohibiting students from citing ROTC service in their
yearbook, his opposition to the campaign to force Harvard to divest its
portfolio of companies that do business in Israel, and his confrontation with
African-American studies professor Cornel West over the quality of West’s
scholarship, a confrontation widely reported at the time to have led West to
decamp to Princeton. 4 Summers’s mea culpas in the aftermath of the response
to his remarks were to no avail. At a meeting on March 15, 2005, the Harvard
Arts & Sciences faculty passed a resolution declaring a lack of confidence in
the president. With Summers's recent announcement of his resignation,
effective June 2006, it seems clear that faculty members hardly covered
themselves in glory, and Hicks's book helps us to understand why.
Hicks organizes his material with historical insight and analytical
finesse around a central thesis: “The failure of epistemology made
postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism
necessary” (p. i, emphasis in text). The six chapters that make up Explaining
Postmodernism can be divided conveniently into two groups of three chapters,
each group pivoting on a hypothesis about postmodernism. The articulation
and defense of these hypotheses, together with a delineation of their
implications for philosophy, science, politics, ethics, education, and the arts is
the raison d’etre of Explaining Postmodernism and the basis of its
importance. In what follows I will discuss central themes in Hicks’s book
(without claiming to do justice to the vast range of topics it takes up): Kant
and postmodernist epistemology, postmodernist politics and the Left, and
3 Steven Pinker, “Sex Ed,” The New Republic, February 14, 2005, pp. 15-17; Harvey
Mansfield, “Fear and Intimidation at Harvard,” The Weekly Standard, March 7, 2005,
p. 10.
4 Jason Zengerle, “Harvard Coup,” The New Republic, March 7, 2005, pp. 11-14.
postmodernist nihilism. First, however, let me say something about Hicks’s
view of postmodernism as a reaction to the Enlightenment project.
2. What Is Postmodernism?
The terms “postmodern,” “postmodernism,” and “postmodernist” are
associated with disciplines as different as literary criticism, architecture,
painting, and philosophy and have come into use in these disciplines at
different times and for different purposes. It is therefore a matter of some
dispute whether postmodernism is best described as an historical period
stretching from the 1960s to the present; a mosaic of moods, motifs, and
themes; a distinctive style, sensibility, or point of view; or all of these things.
Even when we confine our attention to the terms as they show up in
philosophical contexts, we find a multiplicity of uses. Philosophers have
characterized postmodernism as a set of theses, as a “condition,” in the words
of Jurgen Habermas, in which there is “a crisis of modernity,” and even as “an
activist strategy.” The great dangers, of course, are either to be so
overwhelmed by the many forms postmodernism has taken that one is unable
to offer a useful characterization at all or to make postmodernism appear more
monolithic than it is. Fortunately, Hicks has largely avoided these extremes.
Rather than try to settle controversies about its contested boundaries, he
proceeds with an account of postmodernism as a comprehensive intellectual
and cultural movement defined by certain fundamental metaphysical,
epistemological, and ethical premises that brought together intellectual
developments in the mid-twentieth century in many areas, including
philosophy, politics, and the physical sciences (p. 21). Postmodernism is anti-
realist in its metaphysics, for it denies that we can speak meaningfully of an
independently existing reality. It is relativist if not skeptical in its
epistemology, rejecting reason, or anything else, as a means of acquiring
objective knowledge. It is collectivist and social-constructivist in its accounts
of human nature, activist in its ethics and politics, and noisomely avant-
gardist in its aesthetics.
Any family of views calling itself post-modernist positions itself
historically and conceptually as a response to “modernism.” In philosophy,
the essential modernist figures are Bacon, Descartes, and Locke with their
philosophical naturalism, confidence in reason, and individualism (p. 7). In
Hicks’s view, “The battle between modernism and the philosophies that led to
postmodernism was joined at the height of the Enlightenment”—with its
innovation and progress in science and technology, its liberal politics, and its
free markets, which were all made possible by a confidence in the power of
reason (pp. 22-23). Hicks’s discussion of the epistemology and political
philosophy of these paradigms of modernism helps us to identify what
postmodernists see themselves as negating and transcending. Summarizing
this discussion, Hicks writes:
Postmodernism rejects, or is deeply suspicious of, truth, objectivity, and
progress, and is characterized by a distinctive anti-science, anti-capitalist
mentality. Postmodernists are united by both a shared philosophical history
and a shared conception of human nature—or at least agreement about what
our “core feelings” are: “dread and guilt” (Kierkegaard and Heidegger);
“alienation, victimization, and rage” (Marx); “a deep need for power”
(Nietzsche); and “a dark and aggressive sexuality” (Freud). As Hicks
observes, postmodernists divide over the question whether these core feelings
are socially or biologically determined, but “in either case, individuals are not
in control of their feelings: their identities are a product of their group
memberships, whether economic, sexual, or racial,” and since these vary, with
no objective standards to which we can submit our alternative and conflicting
perspectives, “group balkanization and conflict must necessarily result” (p.
As Hicks makes clear, far from emerging fully developed from the
work of a few Sixties-era French theorists, postmodernism has a distinguished
lineage that can be traced back to Kant, Rousseau, and Marx. Its influence has
been felt not only in philosophy, where its leading strategists include Michel
Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Richard Rorty, but also
in literary criticism and legal theory (Stanley Fish, Frank Lentricchia),
psychology (Jacques Lacan), philosophy of science (Paul Feyerabend, Luce
Irigaray), architecture (Charles Jencks, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves), and
literature and the arts (Thomas Pynchon, Laurie Andersen, Cindy Sherman,
Damien Hirst).
3. Kant and Postmodernist Epistemology
Hicks’s first hypothesis about postmodernism is:
Postmodernism is the first ruthlessly consistent statement of the
consequences of rejecting reason, those consequences being
Postmodernism’s essentials are the opposite of modernism’s. Instead
of natural reality—anti-realism. Instead of experience and reason—
linguistic social subjectivism. Instead of individual identity and
autonomy—various race, sex, and class group-isms. Instead of
human interests as fundamentally harmonious and tending toward
mutually-beneficial interaction—conflict and oppression. Instead of
valuing individualism in values, markets, and politics—calls for
communalism, solidarity, and egalitarian restraints. Instead of prizing
the achievements of science and technology—suspicion tending
toward outright hostility. (pp. 14-15)
necessary given the history of epistemology since Kant. (p. 81,
emphasis in text)
To understand Kant’s significance as a precursor of postmodernism, Hicks
looks at Kant’s prominence on the broad horizon of the Enlightenment, whose
most influential thinkers were sustained by the rationalist hope that the use of
reason would be transformative of life. The advancement of science and the
growth of knowledge were to lead to progress, prosperity, and perfectibility.
Nowhere is this eighteenth-century optimism more dramatically shown to be
problematic than in the writings of Rousseau. Hostile to the very science with
which most of his contemporaries were infatuated, Rousseau challenged the
faith in this wonderful engine of progress in a “Counter-Enlightenment”
critique of reason that had an important influence on Kant (p. 24ff.). Not only
do we not need all that we can obtain by dint of our reason, but the
multiplication of wants in the wake of the application of our inventiveness
leaves us dissatisfied and dependent, at odds with ourselves and incapacitated
for living well. “As the conveniences of life increase and luxury spreads the
virtues disappear; and all this is an effect of the sciences and the arts.” Thus
was Rousseau intent on showing the problematic features of living with the
strategy of progress. 5 It is a measure of his importance that this attitude
remains with us today in that blend of influences from which postmodernism
derives its peculiar appeal: Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.
Kant’s is the paradigm case of rationalist epistemology, and its
failure is the basis of the subsequent rejection of reason typical of
postmodernist thinkers. Two of Kant’s key assumptions are that “the knowing
subject’s having an identity is an obstacle to cognition” (p. 37), and that
“abstractness, universality, and necessity have no legitimate basis in our
experiences” (p. 38). These assumptions mark Kant as “the decisive break
with the Enlightenment and the first major step toward postmodernism” (p.
39). Why is this? Because they amount to the idea that “reason is in principle
severed from reality” (p. 41). According to Hicks, Kant decisively rejected
objectivity. Once one thus separates reason from reality, “the rest is details—
details that are worked out over the next two centuries. By the time we get to
the postmodernist account, reason is seen not only as subjective, but also as
incompetent, highly contingent, relative, and collective” (p. 42).
Postmodernism, thus, is the result of this Counter-Enlightenment
assault on reason prefigured and brought to fruition preeminently in Kant’s
philosophy. Unlike those who take Kant to be a defender and advocate of
reason, Hicks maintains that, according to Kant, “Reality . . . is forever closed
5 For this line of development and the quotation from Rousseau, see the charming
essay by W. D. Falk, “The Age of Reason,” in his Ought, Reasons, and Morality
(Cornell University Press, 1986).
off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own
subjective products” (p. 28). Moreover, Kant was convinced that “the failures
of empiricism and rationalism had shown that objectivity is impossible” (p.
30). But this means that, on Kantian grounds, “science is cut off from reality
itself” (p. 36). From Kant, then, we learn that “the mind is not a response
mechanism but a constitutive mechanism”; that “the mind—and not reality—
sets the terms for knowledge”; and that “reality conforms to reason, and not
vice versa” (p. 39).
In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shift from
objectivity as the standard to subjectivity as the standard. . . .With
Kant, then, external reality thus drops almost totally out of the
picture, and we are trapped inescapably in subjectivity . . . . (pp. 39,
“After Kant,” Hicks writes, “the story of philosophy is the story of
German philosophy” (p. 42). The gap opened up by Kant between subject and
object, reason and reality, was not to be closed, but rather “set the stage for
the reign of speculative metaphysics and epistemological irrationalism in the
nineteenth century” from Hegel to Nietzsche (p. 44). With Hegel, Nietzsche,
and Heidegger come the formative influences of such Continental
postmodernists as Foucault and Derrida, thinkers who gave expression to
irrationalism in the twentieth century: “an agreement with Kant that reason is
impotent to know reality; an agreement with Hegel that reality is deeply
conflictual and/or absurd; a conclusion that reason is therefore trumped by
claims based on feeling, instinct, or leaps of faith; and that the non-rational
and the irrational yield deep truths about reality” (p. 57).
Hicks’s view that Kant is the decisive forerunner of postmodernism’s
anti-realist, anti-reason posture may come as something of a surprise to those
who see Kant not as initiating “the reign of . . . epistemological irrationalism
in the nineteenth century” (p. 44), but rather as one who punctured the
pretensions of the “pure” use of reason if only to emphasize the possibility of
a universally valid rational method in philosophy. Moreover, it is a matter of
some dispute whether Hicks is correct in his account of Kant’s religious
motivation. He writes that Kant was so alarmed by “the beating that religion
had taken at the hands of the Enlightenment thinkers” that he resolved to put
reason “in its proper, subordinate, place” (p. 29). It is also open to dispute
whether Kant was a kind of Kierkegaardian fideist, as he sometimes appears
to be in these pages. Nevertheless, Hicks is clearly justified in calling into
question Kant’s notion of noumenal reality—an idea as decisive for Kant’s
philosophy as it is dubious. But I shall not take up these vexed questions of
Kant exegesis and interpretation because even if Hicks were mistaken here,
his account accurately reflects how Kant’s ideas have been taken by a great
Here the curtain falls on what might be called Act One of Hicks’s
production, with Heidegger busily repudiating logic and reason, all the better
to exalt emotion and feelings; with Foucault “reducing knowledge to an
expression of social power”; with Derrida turning language via deconstruction
into “a vehicle of aesthetic play”; and with Rorty gleefully chronicling the
epistemological and metaphysical failures of the realist and objectivist
tradition (p. 81).
4. Postmodernist Politics and the Left
Act Two (chapters four, five, and six) connects epistemology to
politics, skepticism to socialism. Hicks observes that “Postmodernists are
monolithically Left-wing in their politics” (p. 84), and moreover that those
habits of reason, civility, tolerance, and fair play, so characteristic of “the
modernist package of principles,” have been “least practiced and even
denounced” among the far Left—“particularly among those postmodernists
most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas or with
putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in
faculty meetings . . .” (p. 85). Given the absence of “a roughly random
distribution of commitments across the political spectrum,” it would seem that
epistemology alone is not sufficient to explain postmodernism.
Enter postmodern politics. In a lengthy chapter on “the climate of
collectivism,” Hicks argues that four of socialism’s major claims—that
capitalism is exploitative; that socialism, by contrast, is humane and peaceful;
that capitalism is less productive than socialism; and that socialist economies
will usher in a new era of prosperity—have been refuted both in theory and in
practice, throwing Left-socialist intellectuals into crisis (pp. 86-88). Hicks
provides helpful discussions of Rousseau’s collectivism and statism, Kant on
collectivism and war, Herder on multicultural relativism, Fichte on education
as socialization, Hegel on state-worship, and the rise of National Socialism.
The upshot of these developments is that “the National Socialists and the
collectivist Right were wiped out physically and discredited morally and
intellectually. The new battle lines were simplified and starkly clear: liberal
capitalism versus Left socialism” (p. 134). The stage is thus set for Hicks’s
discussion of Marx and the New Left, which picks up the threads of anti-
reason, non-rational commitment, impatience, demoralization, rage, and calls
for revolutionary violence (pp. 135-70).
many thinkers, and that is what is central to his purpose. For he means to
sketch the historical background of philosophical and political ideas that
yielded up postmodernism, and the answer to that question is presumably
independent of the question whether everything in that background is itself
The rise of Left terrorism in nations other than those controlled by
explicitly Marxist governments was a striking feature of the 1960’s
and early 1970’s. Combined with the broader turn of the Left to non-
rationalism, irrationalism, and physical activism, the terrorist
movement made that era the most confrontational and bloody in the
history of the Left socialist movements of those nations.
But the liberal capitalists were not entirely soft and
complacent, and by the mid-1970’s their police and military forces
had defeated the terrorists, killing some, imprisoning many, driving
others underground more or less permanently. (p. 170)
With the collapse of the New Left and the socialist movement generally, four
figures in the postmodernist movement came into prominence: Foucault,
Lyotard, Derrida, and Rorty.
Accordingly, it was these four academic foes of capitalism, whose tactics and
weapons were not those of the politician, activist, revolutionary, or terrorist,
“who signaled the new direction for the academic Left” (p. 172).
In order to explain the connection between postmodernist
epistemology and politics, it will be helpful to depart from Hicks’s narrative
long enough to matte in some context for postmodernist academic ideology
and to illustrate this here and in the next section, adding a few examples of my
own. Radical political trends in academic philosophy that emerged in the
1960s and 1970s did not wither away, but instead gathered force and continue
to have dramatic practical effects that are still very much in evidence on
campuses across the country. Thomas Kuhn’s insistence on the subjectivity of
scientific paradigms, Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism (“anything
goes”), and Rorty’s “philosophy as conversation” became rallying cries for a
full-dress relativism. At the same time, colleges and universities began a
regime of race and gender preferences in admissions and hiring under the
guise of “diversity” and “representativeness”—an evasive rhetoric designed to
cloak the diminished importance of intellectual mastery of a subject. Faculty
hiring decisions became increasingly constrained by statistical grids. Goals
and timetables (if not de facto quotas) became an indispensable part of the
All four of these postmodernists were born within a seven-year span.
All were well trained in philosophy at the best schools. All entered
their academic careers in the 1950’s. All were strongly committed to
Left politics. All were well aware of the history of socialist theory
and practice. All lived through the crises of socialism of the 1950’s
and 1960’s. And come the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, all
four had high standing in the professional academic disciplines and
high standing among the intellectual Left. (p. 172)
selection process, and a cadre of compliance officers swelled the
administrative ranks as the great experiment became entrenched.
The problem is that once the university embraced the relativism of
political radicalism and the distributive criteria of affirmative action, it was
forced to accept the idea that everything is permitted. The distinction between
argument and propaganda, between carefully marshaled evidence and
inflammatory posturing was contested and finally abandoned. Now anything
was intellectually respectable as long as it was “conversation”—and what
could not be construed as conversation?—allowing all comers a place at the
table or in the seminar room. Of course, far from welcoming all views, the
academic Left had an agenda of intellectual and political orthodoxy as rigid
and authoritarian as the “canon” of the white heterosexual male hegemony it
so despised. One of the most inventive sections of the second half of Hicks’s
book is his discussion of the “Kierkegaardian,” “Reverse Thrasymachean,”
“Machiavellian,” and “Ressentiment” strategies postmodernist thinkers use to
connect their relativistic epistemology and dogmatic political commitments.
The first develops sophisticated epistemological strategies for attacking the
reason and logic which led to problems with the socialist vision of society (p.
180). The second involves marshaling subjectivist and relativist arguments to
support the postmodernist claim that justice is the interest of the weaker and
historically oppressed groups (p. 183). The third uses relativistic epistemology
as a rationalization or rhetorical political strategy to throw opponents off-track
(p. 186). I discuss the fourth strategy, “ressentiment” postmodernism, in
Section 5 below.
As the pendulum swung to the Left, the intellectual and cultural life
of the university became destabilized. Hicks does a good job of exposing the
irony of those who (as I would put it) insisted that you were not to
disassociate yourself from those to whom you felt no particular sympathy, but
who also insisted that you must disassociate yourself from those who offended
their sensitivities—the “dominant powers,” which meant the usual suspects:
the Department of Defense, the “oppressor state” of Israel, the business
community, the wealthy, recruiters associated with the military and the
intelligence community, conservative think tanks, and anyone else who went
against the grain of Left political engagement. Sometimes these strictures took
on a vaguely comic aspect. The author of a text I once assigned for an
undergraduate course in philosophy of mind insisted on putting ‘they’ and
‘their’ in place of singular impersonal pronouns because he regarded the use
of the masculine pronoun in impersonal contexts as “pernicious.”
Accordingly, he adopted the plural pronoun throughout his text even when
strict grammar required a singular. The habit of thought, you see, comes to be
as automatic as that, with no concern for the sweeping generalization, as if all
uses of the masculine pronoun in impersonal contexts were injurious and the
simple expedient of alternating ‘he’ and ‘his’ with ‘she’ and ‘hers’ was not
available. 6
More often, however, the antagonisms were of vastly greater
consequence, and the second half of Hicks’s book, which deals with
postmodern political and educational strategies, amplifies and illustrates his
second hypothesis about postmodernism:
Postmodernism is the academic far Left’s epistemological strategy
for responding to the failures of socialism in theory and in practice.
(p. 89, emphasis in text)
Why, then, has the Left—and, I should add, not just “a leading
segment of the political Left,” as Hicks puts it, but much of the intellectual
and cultural Left generally—“adopted skeptical and relativist epistemological
strategies” (p. 174)? Hicks’s answer is that if “postmodernism is born of the
marriage of Left politics and skeptical epistemology,” then we should not be
surprised to find that “confronted by the continued flourishing of capitalism
and the continued poverty and brutality of socialism,” Left thinkers of the
1950s and 1960s would “stick to their ideals and attack the whole idea that
evidence and logic matter” (p. 90).
5. Academic Noir: Postmodernist Nihilism
In a stunning final section, Hicks concedes that his explanations of
postmodernism’s relativism and subjectivism, its Left politics, and the
connection between them, do not come to grips with “a psychologically
darker streak” running through postmodernism. This requires an explanation
that goes beyond treating postmodernism as “a response to skepticism, a faith-
response to the crisis of a political vision, or as an unscrupulous political
strategy” (p. 191).
The situation is best illustrated in the context of recent academic
controversy. As the opportunities to hire new faculty waxed and waned, the
6 A more balanced attempt at “handling the issue of gender equity” is made by
Nicholas Rescher: “I propose to treat an otherwise undifferentiated someone as male,”
he writes, “but an otherwise unidentified person or agent or individual as female. …
And I shall try to employ these two sorts of locutions in roughly equal proportions.”
Nicholas Rescher, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), p. 216 n. 9. But old stereotypes die hard, and despite
his genuine effort to “achieve fairness while nevertheless averting the barbarism of a
constantly repeated his or her” (ibid.), this does not prevent Rescher from referring to
the “confidence man” and “con man”—instead of the more neutral “con artist” or
“confidence trickster”—who dupes the unwary female out of her life savings (ibid., p.
university became the main repository of postmodernist influence, and the
alienated and disaffected, the irresponsible and preposterous, came and went,
affecting the thought and practice even of those who would not normally be
characterized as postmodernists themselves.
Let us consider some inconsistencies. Most academics believe, or
would say they believe, the theory of evolution, for by their own account they
are scientifically up-to-date. (Many are, for good measure, resolutely
irreligious.) But they distance themselves from the theory of evolution when
what is at issue is whether there is a biological basis for attitudinal or
behavioral differences between men and women, as Lawrence Summers
learned to his dismay. More tellingly, many in the academy believe that the
mass of people are prone to false consciousness, rationalization, wishful
thinking, and other cognitive disabilities that badly distort their politics and
their capacity for free choice in the marketplace, even as they repudiate the
very notions of truth and objectivity. A third case is that despite paying lip-
service to equality and diversity, many Leftists think nothing of invoking
cultural stereotypes to denigrate white Southern males generally, whom they
call “rednecks” and “cowboys.” Of course, the same people are censorious
when others fail to uphold the requisite gender, race, class, and sexual-
disposition sensitivities. Hicks provides additional examples of this pattern of
inconsistency: “all cultures are equally deserving of respect, but Western
culture is uniquely destructive and bad”; “values are subjective, but sexism
and racism are evil”; “technology is destructive and bad, and it is unfair that
some have more technology than others” (p. 184). Hicks also supplies
examples of contradictions between postmodernist theory and historical fact:
“the West is deeply racist”—but the West ended slavery, and only in places
where Western ideas are on the ascendancy are racist ideas in decline; “the
West is deeply sexist”—but women in the West were the first to get suffrage,
contractual rights, and opportunities that most women in the rest of the world
utterly lack; “Western capitalist countries are cruel to their poor”—but the
poor in the West are far better off than the poor anywhere else in the world (p.
How are we to explain the postmodernist oscillation between
subjective relativism and dogmatic absolutism illustrated in these
inconsistencies (not to mention the contradictions between postmodernist
theory and fact)? As Hicks asks, is the relativism primary and the absolutist
politics secondary? Are the absolutist politics primary, advanced by the
rhetoric of relativism? In the end, Hicks suggests that “both the relativism and
the absolutism coexist in postmodernism, but the contradictions between them
simply do not matter psychologically to those who hold them . . . because for
them ultimately nothing matters” (pp. 186, 192, emphasis in original).
Nihilism, never refuted but subdued for so long that it was not
thought necessary to take it seriously, has returned with a vengeance and now
has its defenders even among—especially among—academics. Hicks brings
Act Two to a striking climax with an apocalyptic revelation: postmodernism is
a nihilism.
Hicks supports this thesis with verve and imagination, quoting
postmodernists to convict them out of their own mouths. In a fitting irony, he
uses the nihilists’ own Saint Nietzsche against them, applying Nietzsche’s
concept of ressentiment as a diagnostic tool for explaining postmodernist
strategies. Nietzsche, of course, used ressentiment in his account of master
and slave morality. It is worth quoting Hicks at length:
Slave morality is the morality of the weak . . . . Weaklings are
chronically passive, mostly because they are afraid of the strong. As
a result, they cannot get what they want out of life. They become
envious of the strong, and they also secretly start to hate themselves
for being so cowardly and weak. But no one can live thinking he or
she is hateful. And so the weak invent a rationalization—a
rationalization that tells them they are the good and the moral
because they are weak, humble, and passive. . . . And, of course, the
opposites of those things are evil—aggressiveness is evil, and so is
pride, and so is independence, and so is being physically and
materially successful. (p. 193)
Hicks makes it clear that Leftist acrimony is a deeply burnished feature of the
postmodernist armory. “In the modern world,” he writes, “Left-wing thought
has been one of the breeding grounds for destruction and nihilism” (p. 192).
Its rage is barely concealed, aesthetically as well as politically, which is why
when Hicks comes to central themes in twentieth-century art, he writes
(alluding to the motto of the Dada movement, “Art is shit”) that
“postmodernism is a generalization on Dada’s nihilism. Not only is art shit,
everything is” (p. 197).
The thesis that postmodernism engaged and succumbed to nihilism is
illustrated in Hicks’s discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s version of the Mona
Lisa, with the cartoonish moustache added by Duchamp, and Robert
In our time, “Socialism is the historical loser,” and socialists “will hate that
fact, they will hate the winners for having won, and they will hate themselves
for having picked the losing side. Hate as a chronic condition leads to the urge
to destroy” (p. 194). But they will not limit their rage to political failure:
Postmodern thinkers hold that not just politics has failed—everything
has failed. Being, as Hegel and Heidegger taught us, really has come
to nothing. Postmodernism, then, in its most extreme forms, is about
driving that point home and making nothing reign. (p. 194)
Rauschenberg, who “took Duchamp a step further. Feeling that he was
standing in the shadow of Willem de Kooning’s achievements, he asked for
one of de Kooning’s paintings—which he then obliterated and then painted
over” (pp. 198-99). Hicks says that these works made the statements “Here is
a magnificent achievement that I cannot hope to equal, so that instead I will
deface it and turn it into a joke” and “I cannot be special unless I destroy your
achievement first,” respectively (pp. 198-99). No wonder deconstruction—the
“literary version of Duchamp and Rauschenberg” (p. 199)—is “arrayed
primarily against works that do not square with postmodern commitments” (p.
Deconstruction has the effect of leveling all meaning and value. If a
text can mean anything, then it means nothing more than anything
else—no texts are then great. If a text is a cover for something
fraudulent, then doubt about everything apparently great creeps in.
(p. 199)
Hicks’s analysis at this point has an edgy ingenuity to it, seeing the
hostage art gives to nihilism as symptomatic of the twentieth century’s
characteristic malaise, with all of the postmodernist pathologies it reflects. To
be sure, some minor inaccuracies have found their way into his account of
Rauschenberg, who completely erased (not painted over) a drawing (not a
painting) given to him by de Kooning (who was involved in the project from
the start, even if only reluctantly), for the express purpose of determining
“whether a drawing could be . . . created by the technique of erasing.”
Rauschenberg tells us he spent a month, and forty erasers, trying to do just
that. He then framed, dated, and gave the item the title Erased de Kooning
Drawing and exhibited the erasure as his own work of art. 7 In this respect, the
enterprise may be thought to bear a family resemblance to 4’33”—the
notorious piano piece by the composer John Cage, which consists of a pianist
sitting at a keyboard for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a
note. In both cases it is arguable that we do not have an art work here at all, to
say nothing of one which sends a message of nihilism. But perhaps Hicks only
means that the antics involved in the process of erasing the de Kooning
drawing (or, in the cases of Duchamp and Cage, the act of painting a
moustache on the Mona Lisa or sitting at a piano keyboard in silence) together
with the chutzpah of putting it forward as an artwork of one’s own, is the
vehicle of the nihilistic message.
7 See Rauschenberg’s account, from which I have quoted, in Anecdotes of Modern Art,
ed. Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes (New York: Oxford University Press,
1990), pp. 347-48. Of course, one may not wish to credit Rauschenberg’s account of
his own intentions.
In any case, I take it that Hicks’s remarks in this context are further
illustrations of postmodernism’s descent into nihilism:
To the postmodern mind, the cruel lessons of the modern world are
that reality is inaccessible, that nothing can be known, that human
potential is nothing, and that ethical and political ideals have come to
nothing. The psychological response to the loss of everything is
anger and despair. (p. 198)
So goes Hicks’s diagnosis of postmodernist nihilism’s attack on “the
Enlightenment’s sense of its own moral worth”:
Attack it as sexist and racist, intolerantly dogmatic, and cruelly
exploitative. Undermine its confidence in its reason, its science and
technology. The words do not even have to be true or consistent to
do the necessary damage. (p. 200)
Of course, as Hicks acknowledges, identifying the roots of
postmodernism and linking them to contemporary nihilism does not refute the
doctrine. As the curtain comes down on page 201, one waits in vain for Act
Three. Hicks knows he has an unfinished agenda “essential to maintaining the
forward progress of the Enlightenment vision and shielding it against
postmodern strategies,” namely, a refutation of postmodernism’s historical
premises as they are found in Rousseau, Kant, and Marx and an articulation
and defense of the main alternatives to them (p. 201). Let us hope that
Stephen Hicks will apply the historical understanding, analytical insight, and
argumentative skills so much in evidence in Explaining Postmodernism to
complete the work that remains to be done.